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Let Them Eat Cake in Paris: Dirigisme vs. e-commerce

After my recent focus on the dysfunctional US democracy I return now to one of my favorite topics: Chapter 27 in the long-running saga of efforts by the French Government to deny or retard the internet.

Life was indeed simpler in the 1980s when the French were a world leader in e-commerce with the proprietary Minitel system. While my more adventuresome friends frolicked on the Minitel "rose" (you know who you are), I got sufficient kicks ordering my train tickets at 3615SNCF (once a geek, always a geek). While the Minitel system was, indeed, well ahead of its time, it was the perfect Cartesian closed system for the French -- electronic, ordered, but not too disruptive. When the World Wide Web spread in the 1990s France lagged behind, due in part to the success of the closed Minitel system. This was not unlike Japan's slower acceptance of GSM-based smartphones due to the great success of the i-mode phone system. When France belatedly joined the web generation it always appeared suspicious and reluctant -- much as if it had concluded that www really stood for wild, wild west.

I will skip the French Government's earlier dirigiste efforts to build its own "Google-like" search engine or slow the spread of e-commerce (read Amazon), and cite but two current examples. First, a law recently passed by the French legislature which prohibits Amazon and others from providing free shipping on orders of books in France (under prior law booksellers are already limited to offer no more than a five percent discount to list price on new books). Second, legislation recently proposed by the French Interior Minister to prohibit Uber and other car service companies from picking up passengers in LESS than 15 minutes after the order is placed.

As loyal readers of this blog know, I am a great fan of modern car dispatch services like Uber and Hailo, and I am both a decent Francophone and a great Francophile, but this latest proposal really pissed me off. Paris is dear to my heart, and the year my then-fiancée Maarit and I lived in Paris stands as one of our happiest; however, next to Death Valley, California, Paris is one off the worst places on earth to get a taxi. Thus, I was overjoyed this past September when we flitted around Paris in nice cars at reasonable expense, at all hours of the day and night thanks to Uber. Average wait time? Five to six minutes.

Under the proposed new law intended to "enhance competition on a level playing field," we would have had to stare at our summoned car for 10 minutes before getting in. Not only is the proposed legislation deeply anti-consumer, it is retrograde and techno-phobic. In the end, it will not only deprive French citizens and tourists of an efficient and consumer-friendly new service, but also retard the development of potentially competitive French services that leverage mobile internet technology.

Let them eat cake while they wait for their taxi.
Published Saturday, October 19, 2013 1:52 PM by Tom Glocer



padawenga1994 said:

good said!
November 5, 2013 5:10 AM

Frédéric said:

The underlying reason of what you describe is the massive and constant pressure of the lobbies on the politicians. That is an evidence in France, at the EU parliament, in Switzerland and in many other respectful countries.

As for your experience with the parisian taxis, it is related to the public institutions who control the numerus clausus of licences with the scrutiny of the lobby of taxis. There’s a degree of opacity with the prohibitive cost of the license (around 200K€) ; a way of controlling who can enter and profit this market and consequently a way of controlling the competition. There are less taxis in Paris than 100 years ago, and obviously there’s a need for more taxis these days. But the lobby of taxis impose the rule of the game, arguing an unfair competition, and threaten the politicians with strikes. That led to this new law.

Nothing new but not enough voiced, lobbies are a big concern in the sense they usually dictate decisions of the politicians. An evidence with the case you report. The pre-eminence of the lobbies (and the unions) is symptomatic in France and in Europe. Our politicians don’t show political and moral responsibility. And that pisses me off.

That said, instead of «  having to stare at your summoned car », next time have a 10mn stroll eating a croissant while waiting your taxi: Paris is indeed a nice city!
December 18, 2013 8:19 AM
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